There’s another sports documentary series coming to HBO, with this one focused on “how public policies have contributed to inequities in the sports landscape and society at large.” Level Playing Field is a Vox Media Studios production comprising four half-hour episodes, with the first one premiering on HBO (at 8 p.m. ET/PT) and HBO Max Tuesday, Sept. 14 and the others following on subsequent Tuesdays. Here’s an episode summary from the release:
Episode 1: “Midnight Basketball”
Debut Date: TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14 (8:00 – 8:30 p.m. ET/PT)
Episode 1 investigates the intersection of sports, race, and social policy through a look at “Midnight Basketball” – the innovative program started in Glenarden, Maryland in 1986 to provide a haven for at-risk youths and help curb rising crime rates in the area. The successful endeavor was embraced by both President George H. W. Bush in his “1,000 Points of Light” initiative and President Bill Clinton in the 1994 Crime bill, yet still became the focus of partisan debate riddled with racial stereotypes – stereotypes that still linger to this day.
Episode 2: “Misclassified”
Debut Date: TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 (8:00 – 8:30 p.m. ET/PT)
Episode 2 focuses on the events that precipitated the NCAA’s creation of the term “student-athlete,” connecting that history to a wider modern trend in corporate America: avoiding legally classifying workers as “employees” to escape the fiscal responsibilities that come along with that designation.
Episode 3: “Down the Backstretch”
Debut Date: TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28 (8:00 – 8:30 p.m. ET/PT)
Episode 3 explores how the shift in United States immigration policy towards Central America during the Trump administration impacted the horse racing industry. With laborers from Latin America making up a predominant number of backstretch workers at racetracks across the country, the “sport of kings” – typically associated with big money trainers and owners – suddenly found itself with a shortage of some of its most overlooked and undervalued figures.
Episode 4: “The Assist” (Finale)
Debut Date: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 5 (8:00 – 8:30 p.m. ET/PT)
Episode 4 explores the intersection of sports and politics through an examination of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream’s landmark role in the election of Senator Raphael Warnock and the ongoing fight against voter suppression in Georgia. The Dream players’ impassionate campaign against then-Georgia senator – and team owner – Kelly Loeffler made an undeniable imprint on one of the most closely watched senate races of all time.
The episode directors are Akil Gibbons (“Midnight Basketball”), Joe Posner (“Misclassified”), Sam Ellis (“The Backstretch”), and Rebecca Stern (“The Assist”). The series is executive produced by Mike Jacobs, Joe Posner, Emily Anderson, Chad Mumm, and Mark Olsen, and co-executive produced by Mac Schneider and Marina Stadler.
HBO has often been willing to dive into sports stories beyond the field, both with Real Sports and with individual documentaries like LFG. Teaming up with Vox for this seems like a continuation of those efforts, and there are some interesting stories selected here. But it’s interesting to see Vox diving into sports for a project like this not long after their furloughs and layoffs showed how little they valued sports, and the thought comes to mind that some of the capable people formerly employed at Vox’s sport sites might have had some useful contributions to a series like this. We’ll see how this series turns out.